President Robert S. Nelsen speaks to guests during the President's Community Council Breakfast. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Two days after President Robert S. Nelsen returned from China, where he and Provost Ching-Hua Wang signed reciprocal-exchange agreements to allow Sacramento State students to attend Chinese universities, he said the trip was a “cultural shock.”

“I am in shock from visiting universities where the government was seriously and profoundly investing in them, to returning to a state where government has been, for years, divesting in higher education,” he said during the President’s Community Council Breakfast on Oct. 27 at the Leslie and Anita Harper Alumni Center. More than 150 Sac State alumni, members of the campus community, and friends of the University attended the gathering.

“It became critically obvious that we must increase the number of people contributing to the President’s Circle so that we can offer scholarships for our students to study abroad,” Nelsen said. “More than ever, it became patently obvious that with our government divesting in higher education, we must fundraise not only to offer our students a quality education just to keep up with China, let alone the rest of the world.”

Nelsen elaborated on the ways Sacramento State provides students with “the quality education they deserve.” He noted that Sac State – which Forbes magazine calls “the single largest talent pool in the region” – is making steady progress with the “Finish in Four” campaign, launched last year as a part of the CSU’s system-wide effort to improve graduation rates.

“The ‘Finish in Four’ campaign is working,” Nelsen said. “… The times they are a changin’.”

Notable among the changes:

  • After one year, Sac State’s four-year graduation rate is 12 percent, well above 8 percent, where it hovered for nearly 30 years.
  • This fall, 84 percent of freshmen pledged to take 15 credits per semester, which will have them finish in four years. In 2016, 62 percent took the pledge.
  • The two-year graduation rate for transfer students is 32 percent, up from 27 percent. The goal by 2025 is to have 38 percent of transfers graduating within two years and 81 percent graduating in four years. Sac State launched its “Through in Two” campaign this fall.
  • Also by 2025, the CSU’s goal is to have 60 percent of all freshmen graduating within six years. Sac State’s six-year graduation rate has improved to 48.9 percent.
  • Smart Planner, an online degree-planning tool, is activated for more than 289 programs and concentrations. Seventy percent of Sac State’s students have created a personalized degree plan.
  • The efforts of the Math Education and Preparation Task Force has given students straightforward paths toward graduation by reducing the math remediation rate and eliminating non-credit remediation math courses. By next year, no incoming students will have to take remedial courses.
  • Sac State’s goal by 2025 is to have no difference between the six-year graduation rates for underrepresented minority students and non-underrepresented minority students. Currently, the gap is 1.9 percent, down from the previous 8.1 percent.

“We recently received our first progress summary from the Chancellor’s Office, and I am proud of where we are going,” Nelsen said. “But, let’s be honest, we still have work to do. … I am pleased by the work of our faculty and staff to get our students graduated on time, but 12 percent still is not anywhere nearly good enough, not if we are going to keep up with China.”

The President shared his impressions of China, where first-graders speak English and universities are transforming academic programs from, for instance, engineering to robotics and from business administration to innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Change was everywhere,” Nelsen said, “and China drove into me that we too must change or we, especially our students and our economy, will be left behind.”

Sacramento State already is making major changes, moving from “transition to transformation” and becoming a destination campus instead of “a commuter college.”

Among the examples:

Sac State, which has had no new academic building in 12 years, broke ground in September on the $91 million Science Complex. The University is raising $20 million for the project.

Amenities for students include a renovated dining hall and a new residence hall, and the 71,000-square-foot expansion/renovation of the University Union.

Meanwhile, work is underway on Parking Structure V on the north side of campus. Once it’s completed, construction will begin on the Welcome Center.

Sac State, with a newly hired executive director of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity, is guided by an imperative on inclusion and diversity where belonging is crucial.

The campus once hired 20 new faculty each year but now hires more than 80. More than 40 percent of new hires are faculty of color, and more than 60 percent are women.

Folsom Hall, the home of the School of Nursing and the Department of Physical Therapy, in December will welcome the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (formerly Speech Pathology.) And classes will be held next spring for the first time at Sacramento Downtown, where Sac State will further establish its role as California’s capital university.

“We are not only a university on the rise, but because of Sacramento State, we are a region on the rise. And, together, we are making Sacramento even greater,” Nelsen said. “The progress that we are making here at Sacramento State should make every one of you in this room proud.”– Dixie Reid